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May 13, 2004

Just call her Miss Ability

From: Charlotte Observer, NC - May 13, 2004

Scrappy athlete was born profoundly deaf


Scrappy athlete got slow start Betsy Barnhardt is 10 years old. She's on the mound for her Little League team right now, winding up for another of her 48 mph fastballs.

Betsy is the only girl in this Charlotte baseball league, and she's one of its best pitchers, too. Although 48 mph doesn't sound very fast, it's plenty quick for this league otherwise made up of boys ages 10 to 12.

This afternoon, Betsy is pitching her third and final inning. She already has struck out seven.

That's a little bit out of the ordinary.

But Betsy's story becomes extraordinary when you understand that she was born profoundly deaf. She also was diagnosed with a "mild" case of cerebral palsy shortly before the age of 2. At that time, she still hadn't learned to walk.

Now, at 4 feet 6 and a solid 72 pounds, Betsy feels comfortable standing on a pitcher's mound or a soccer field or a free-throw line. She's a youth standout in all three sports. She plays basketball in the winter in a league mostly filled with boys. Soccer is the only sport she plays on a girls-only team; she's a forward on one of those elite clubs that travels around the state for better competition.

Why do all of that?

Betsy's favorite answer to that question is simple: "It's fun." But she can't give it right now. The fourth-grader is coming out of that windup, blond hair poking out from under her cap.

The ball thuds into the catcher's mitt. The batter, who probably outweighs Betsy by 40 pounds, never moves the bat from his shoulder.

"Strike three!" calls the umpire.

Betsy jogs to the dugout with her teammates.

Some of them -- and some of their parents -- don't even know she was born deaf. A cochlear implant worked magic for Betsy shortly after she turned 2.

The implant, installed in a seven-hour surgery, allows Betsy to hear well, but out of her right ear only. When she takes off the speech processor to sleep at night, she is so deaf that she couldn't hear a lawn mower if it was plowing through her bedroom.

With the cochlear implant, though, Betsy can hear. Whispers are sometimes difficult to pick up, and background noise occasionally blurs some sounds. But her speech -- thanks in part to years of speech therapy -- is very good.

For years, she has been happiest with a ball in her hands or at her feet.

"Sports has definitely given her an identity," says Betsy's father, Lewis Barnhardt. "Deaf kids struggle with the social part of life sometimes. She's been able to take all the energy she has and bring it out through sports. She has a very competitive heart."

I can vouch for that. A few days ago, Betsy and I played H-O-R-S-E on her backyard goal. She had been polite and somewhat shy during our interview, but now her competitiveness started to rev up.

After she hit an 18-footer and I took my place to attempt the shot, I was startled to hear her scream "Miss it!" just as I was about to shoot.

I did.

Betsy smiled at me mischievously, revealing a mouthful of braces.

If your house is full of kids, bulging with sports equipment and thumping to the background music of ESPN's "SportsCenter," then you already know the sort of house in which Betsy lives.

Kim and Lewis Barnhardt, who live in Myers Park, have deep Charlotte roots and were both good athletes themselves. Lewis went to West Charlotte, playing soccer both there and in college at St. Andrews. Kim was a swimmer; her family was one of the original founding families of Mecklenburg Aquatic Club.

Betsy is the second of their three children and the only one born with any sort of disability. The Barnhardts now think that her deafness impaired her overall development in the early years, contributing to what they believe was a misdiagnosis of cerebral palsy.

"One thing we've never done is feel sorry for Betsy," Kim Barnhardt says. "She was dealt a bad hand, but she turned that bad hand into a royal flush."

I asked Betsy recently what she will be when she grows up.

"A soccer player," she says. "Or ... maybe a baseball player."

Right now is one of Betsy's favorite times of year, when the baseball and soccer seasons overlap. She doesn't specialize in one sport, which is the best way to go when you're 10 years old.

As Cal Ripken Jr., that icon of single-sport fidelity, told Sports Illustrated in 2003: "My advice to every 10-year-old baseball player is to put down your glove at the end of the season and try something else."

Betsy doesn't wait until the end of the season, of course. She's often switching uniforms in midafternoon.

Once, on a day in which she was supposed to play soccer and baseball, her mother decided it was too much and she couldn't play in the baseball game. Betsy cried the rest of the day, and from then on her parents let her play all she wanted.

In reality, Betsy probably won't be the next Mia Hamm, Dawn Staley or Roger Clemens. Every youth baseball and soccer team boasts a couple of very good players.

But in the meantime, as Betsy would say, it sure is fun.

Says Shane Hummell, the sports director at the Dowd YMCA and a witness to dozens of Betsy's basketball games over the past few seasons: "I've always been struck by Betsy's competitiveness and her anticipation. She always leads her team in steals and all the hustle stats. She loves to dive out of bounds for loose balls. And when the game is over, if she loses, a few minutes later she's over at one of the side goals with some other kids, trying to get up another game."

Sports does a lot of things wrong. Too often, we forget the Betsy Barnhardts of the world, and how sports also does a lot of things right.

Betsy Barnhardt is 10 years old. She's on the mound for her Little League team right now, winding up for another of her 48 mph fastballs.

© 2004 Charlotte Observer and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.